A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s

R e v i e w

Public Opinion and the Democratic Deficit: Australia and the War Against Iraq

by Murray Goot

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To facilitate downloading,
this paper has been divided
into parts I & II

A few weeks after the return of the Howard Government, in November 2001, I was invited to speak at a joint meeting in Canberra of the Academy of Humanities in Australia and the Academy of the Social Sciences. At that time, the Prime Minister’s reputation as a man who fashioned his policies on the basis of opinion polls was at its height; not long before no less a figure than Paul Kelly, the country’s most distinguished political journalist, had described John Howard as ‘the most knee-jerk, poll-reactive, populist prime minister in the past 50 years’ (2000). Many in the audience were convinced that this was precisely how Howard had fashioned his government’s policies on a whole raft of issues, not least those to do with ‘race’; that it was on the basis of such policies, especially in relation to refugees, that his government had been returned; and for doing it they considered him deserving of the deepest disapprobation.

Shortly before the Howard Government announced, on February 18, that Australia would join the United States and Britain in their attempt to disarm Iraq, I was invited to Canberra by another group of academics concerned that Howard was about to embroil Australia in a conflict without the formal authorisation of the Parliament; that far from following public opinion on the issue he was prepared to defy it; and that even for contemplating such a course they considered him deserving of the deepest disapprobation.

What a difference an issue makes. ‘The very people who a month ago were snorking on about John Howard being poll-driven’, one columnist observed after the United States-led coalition had gone to war, ‘are the ones who are now complaining that he’s deaf to the demonstrators’ (Ruehl, 2003). Not Kelly. He had a different line in chutzpah. Insisting that for Howard to ‘abandon his position’ in the face of ‘such large marches’ would be ‘neither democratic nor wise’, Kelly went on to chastise those peace-marchers who ‘merely want Howard to behave according to the populist parody of him that they have created’ (2003b).

The question of what, if anything, governments should do in relation to public opinion is integral to any discussion of democracy and therefore to any discussion of a ‘democratic deficit’. But before I turn to this concept, or attempt to link it to public opinion and to the Government’s position on the war, I need to say something about the state of public opinion itself - or at least about the state of polled opinion - during the months leading up to Australia’s formal commitment, when the Prime Minister was insisting that questions about war were entirely ‘hypothetical’, through to the end of the war itself.

In the first part of the paper I argue that opinion on American involvement was fairly evenly divided; that at least until the start of the war, on most measures – but not all - opponents of an Australian engagement outnumbered supporters, the more so where pollsters did not push respondents to declare themselves one or the other; and that much of the polling suggested that opinion on the war hinged on the United Nations, with support rising at the prospect of a UN endorsement and falling away sharply at the prospect of UN opposition. The second part argues that the concept of a ‘democratic deficit’, far from being an integral part of any democratic discourse, is part of a discourse about democracy in supra-national entities that has its roots in the European Community; that the concept does not necessarily entail the idea that specific public policies should enjoy widespread public support; but if that is to be a requirement, the quality of the opinion that such a thesis seeks to empower needs to be assessed. And in the third part I argue that some of the apparent incoherence of polled opinion on issues to do with the war may have been a product of the polls rather than a predicate of the public; that the polls on how public opinion would react if the UN failed to endorse a war were especially misleading; and that these and other shortcomings of the polls conducted for the press make it difficult to assess the quality of opinion the polls were reporting. The paper concludes with some reflections on the calls that were made for a referendum, some remarks about polls as a tool of popular empowerment, and some speculations on the ways in which the Prime Minister read public opinion.

The Polls

Polling organisations in Australia started to ask questions about a possible war in Iraq soon after the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, warned that the world could no longer afford to appease Iraq and after the Prime Minister indicated that if Australia were to receive a request to help in a US-led attack it would be considered on its merits. That was in July. Between the second week in August and the end of the war in April, while the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age (owned by John Fairfax & Sons) commissioned just two questions from ACNielsen, the Australian, Sunday Telegraph (both owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) commissioned thirty-two from Newspoll – an organisation half-owned by News Limited and half-owned by another market research agency Millward Brown, and the most closely watched poll in the land.1

Two other companies - Hawker Britton, and Roy Morgan Research - also published national polls, independently of the press. The Hawker Britton-UMR poll, the newest on the block, represented the coming together of Hawker Britton, a political consultancy associated with Labor, and a market research firm, UMR Research, that polled for Labor. Morgan, which years earlier had polled for the Liberals, was the oldest player on the block. Conceived during World War II by Sir Keith Murdoch at the Herald and Weekly Times, it had reported public opinion in several wars. Until the end of 2001, when its election forecast had been spectacularly wrong (Goot, 2002: 80-90), Morgan had polled since 1996 for the Bulletin, owned by Kerry Packer’s Consolidated Press

Polling was not only reasonably extensive; it was relatively intense. Before the war, fifty-two questions on Iraq had been included in published polls taken nation-wide; the war itself, which lasted four weeks, saw sixteen more, fourteen of these in the first nine days. In the four months leading up to the first war with Iraq, in 1991, no more than twenty-one questions had been asked nation-wide, most in just two polls; during the war itself, which lasted six weeks, only ten questions on the war were included in nation-wide polls (Goot, 1992: 143).

What did respondents think of the United States going to war against Iraq? Did they think Australia should join in? And what differences did the polls register when respondents were asked either about a war that met with United Nations approval or about a war that did not? In one form or another, these were the key issues the polls addressed.

In addressing them, the polls adopted a fairly uniform approach. Typically, they set out to interview cross-sections of resident adults, drawing fresh samples every time – Morgan interviewing samples of 400 to 1,000; Hawker Britton-UMR, 1,000; Newspoll, 700 to 1200; and ACNielsen, 1,400 to 2,100. They conducted their interviews by telephone – if not the best method of sampling, certainly the quickest way of reporting a result. And, in the style of a referendum, the questions they asked almost always restricted respondents to a binary choice – one that not only did not invite respondents to sit on the fence (‘don’t know’, ‘don’t care’, ‘can’t decide’), but that positively discouraged them from doing so. The effect of this approach was to conflate genuine opinion with non-opinion, and to boost both the proportion said to be in favour of a proposition and the proportion said to be against – though to what degree, with one or two notable exceptions, is impossible to say.

American involvement

How did Australians view the possibility of an American attack on Iraq? Before the war, three questions were asked about this; once America had attacked, there were two more. At first, opinion was divided. In September, a Morgan sample split 45: 47 over ‘the use of an American force against Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein’; over ‘the United States military launching an attack on Iraq’, Newspoll reported a 33: 47 split (Morgan 2002a, Vass, 2003). 2 The higher proportion of ‘undecided’ respondents reported by Newspoll (20 per cent) compared to Morgan (8 per cent) may have had something to do with the fact that whereas Morgan had suggested a reason for the attack (and guaranteed an outcome?) Newspoll had not. Both polls reported the same level of opposition; Morgan’s smaller proportion of ‘undecided’ respondents boosted the level of support for, not the level of opposition to, an American attack.

Subsequent Morgan polls (Morag 2002c, 2003b, 2003c) reported increased levels of support: in December, a plurality (49: 43) in favour of an American attack; in March, after the outbreak of war, a majority (51.5 and 52 per cent). But the movement in favour of the Americans – seven percentage points between mid-September and mid-March - may have been smaller than these figures suggests. Morgan’s samples were generally small, the number of respondents ranging from 408 to 682. Moreover, in March its samples were drawn not from people aged 14 plus, as they were in September, but from electors; and teenagers, a subsequent Newspoll suggests, were much less likely than older respondents to support a war (O’Keefe, 2003).

Australia’s commitment

Did Australians want their forces to be part of a US-led attack on Iraq? First asked in August, questions of this kind were asked more frequently than any other question on Iraq. On six occasions, Hawker Britton-UMR asked whether respondents approved or disapproved ‘Australian armed forces participating in a United States led attack on Iraq’, five before and once after the attack. On five occasions before the war, Newspoll asked respondents to think about ‘Australia’s involvement in possible US led action against Iraq with the objective of deposing Saddam Hussein’ before asking them (once without this preamble) whether they personally would be ‘in favour or against Australian forces being part of any US led military action against Iraq’; with the war underway, it deleted its reference to the United States and, on four occasions, asked about ‘Australian troops being involved in military action against Iraq’. Morgan, too, asked ‘about Australians being part of an American military force’ and whether, ‘[i]f military force is used to depose Saddam Hussein’, Australia should be ‘part of the American military force.’ This question was asked twice before the war and twice while the war was underway. At the behest of Gallup International, Morgan also asked, in January, if ‘military action goes ahead against Iraq’, whether ‘Australia should or should not support this action.’

Before the war, the answer to the question about Australia’s involvement with the United States was all but unequivocal: across a dozen polls, none showed majority support. Over half of those interviewed (54 per cent on average) opposed the idea; only a third (36 per cent) supported it; and around these averages the range was narrow. Despite talk, prior to the war, of increasing opposition – according to some reports, 500,000 marched on 16 February in anti-war demonstrations around the country (Priest, 2003) – the polls revealed no clear trend in either the extent of opposition or its strength. From August to January, according to Newspoll, those strongly opposed consistently outnumbered those strongly in favour by about two-to-one (Kerin, 2002; Horin, 2002).3 In September and December, Morgan recorded a similar result, although in its second poll the gap between strong supporters and strong opponents had narrowed (Morgan 2002a, 2002c).

The polls suggested not only that Australians did not want to be part of an American-led force, but that American efforts to stitch up a ‘coalition of the willing’ and Australia’s apparent willingness to go along with it had damaged the image of the Australian Government vis-à-vis America and the American Government vis-à-vis Australia. In May 2001, on the fiftieth anniversary of the ANZUS, almost all (92 per cent) of those interviewed in a poll commissioned by the Americans thought Australia-US relations were in ‘good shape’ (Marshall, 2001). But by August 2002, and again in October, Hawker Britton-UMR found opinion evenly split between those who thought ‘the current level of support for United States foreign policy’ was ‘about right’ or ‘not enough’ (43-46 per cent) and those who thought it was actually ‘too much’ (45-47 per cent).4 Asked by Morgan, mid-January 2003, whether ‘generally’ they thought ‘American foreign policy has a positive effect on Australia, a negative effect’ or ‘no effect’, the majority of respondents (51 per cent) said it had a ‘negative’ effect; only a third (31 per cent) thought the effect was generally ‘positive’ (Morgan, 2003a). And when ACNielsen, around the same time, asked respondents whether Iraq or North Korea was the ‘greater threat to world peace’ opinion was evenly divided (Allard, 2003a). What would the figures have looked like, one cannot help wondering, if to its short list of Iraq and North Korea, ACNielsen had been brave enough to add the United States?

While all the polls showed respondents opposed to Australia’s joining a US-led war on Iraq, Newspoll and Morgan showed a much narrower gap than did Hawker Britton-UMR. According to the Newspoll series and/or Morgan series, which ran from August to December, the level of opposition to the war was seven-to-seventeen points greater than the level of support; but the Hawker Britton-UMR poll, conducted five times between August to March, put the level of opposition 25 to 30 points ahead (except in November when, mysteriously, the gap dropped to fourteen).

The most obvious difference between Newspoll and Morgan, on the one side, and Hawker Britton-UMR, on the other, was the proportion of ‘undecided’ respondents: Newspoll (9.5 per cent) and Morgan (4.5 per cent) reported fewer than Hawker Britton-UMR (12.5 per cent) – though the Hawker Britton-UMR figure dropped to 7 per cent once the war commenced. As we have already observed in relation to polls on America’s going to war, a high ‘undecided’ had an asymmetrical effect: for the most part it pulled respondents away from war camp rather than the peace camp. Support for going to war was not only a minority position; the minority was ‘softer’ than the majority. As both Newspoll and Morgan show (Hawker Britton generated no data on this) those who supported war were less likely to be strong supporters than those who opposed war were likely to be strong opponents.

The reason Hawker Britton-UMR reported more ‘undecided’ respondents than did Newspoll or Morgan almost certainly lies in the way each organisation treated respondents reluctant to endorse either of the alternatives on offer. When those interviewed by Hawker Britton-UMR responded to the question of Australia’s involvement by saying ‘it depends’, they were recorded as saying ‘it depends’. When respondents in the Newspoll surveys said ‘it depends’, interviewers read them the question again, and (if necessary) again; only if they still refused to come down on one side or the other were interviewers allowed to lump them in with the ‘don’t knows’ and ‘don’t cares’ as ‘uncommitted’. When respondents in the Morgan surveys hesitated they were asked which way they were ‘leaning’. Not surprisingly, the proportion recorded either as ‘it depends’ or ‘unsure’ by Hawker Britton-UMR almost always exceeded those recorded as ‘uncommitted’ by Newspoll or as ‘can’t says’ by Morgan.

The only question to register majority support for an Australian commitment was one Morgan posed in January. ‘If military action goes ahead’, respondents were asked, ‘do you think Australia should or should not support this action’? Opinion divided 53: 40 (Morgan, 2003a). There was no reference to America. The significance of this poll, grasped neither by Morgan nor by the media, is something to which we shall return.

Once the war commenced, opinion in all the polls shifted. Exactly how far is difficult to say: the polls are at odds. But shift they did – and in favour of Australia’s commitment. In a poll taken the day after the Prime Minister’s March 18 announcement that Australian forces would fight, Morgan reported that almost as many respondents approved ‘Australia’s being part of the American military force’ (46.5 per cent) as disapproved (48.5 per cent); these figures were little different from the 45: 52 figure generated by the same question in December in a poll that included respondents aged 14-17. However, towards the end of the first week of the war signs of a shift seemed more certain: a smaller Morgan sample split 50.5: 46 (Morgan, 2003b, 2003c).

More dramatic was the shift reported by Hawker Britton-UMR. In the first week of March, it found only a third (32 per cent) in favour of ‘Australian armed forces participating in a United States led attack on Iraq’; by the end of March – the end of the first week of the war – the proportion in favour had jumped to half (51 per cent), a shift of nineteen percentage points.

The Australian, a strong supporter of American intervention, also trumpeted a ‘dramatic shift’ in favour of the Australian commitment when it reported the first Newspoll of the war (Shanahan, 2003d). But the note struck by the paper was not one that had been written into the pollster’s score. According to Newspoll, opinion on ‘Australian troops being involved in military action against Iraq’ was evenly divided, 45: 47. This was virtually the same result, 46.5: 48.5, as Morgan obtained in its first poll of the war. And the Morgan result, as we have seen, was not very different to its December figure. The paper’s mistake was to compare the 45: 47 figure, obtained by Newspoll, with the previous Newspoll, conducted just before the war, when opinion divided 25: 68 - not over ‘Australian troops being involved in military action against Iraq’, but over whether Australian troops should be involved in military action against Iraq ‘if the United Nations did not support military action’. For Dennis Shanahan, the paper’s political editor, the poll indicated a shift, in a matter of days, of twenty percentage points. But the questions were not commensurate. A question that refers to the UN not supporting a particular action is not the same as a question about actions that respondents may or may not believe the UN does not support.

Nonetheless, with the war underway, successive samplings by Newspoll did indicate growing support for Australia’s involvement, diminishing opposition, or both. A 45: 47 split on 19-20 March became a 50: 42 split on 21-23 March, a 51: 38 split on 28-30 March, and a 57: 36 split towards war’s end, on 11-13 April (Shanahan, 2003d, 2003e; Lewis, 2003a, 2003b). At the beginning of the war, Newspoll reported a margin of two percentage points against Australian involvement; after four days of fighting, the margin was eight points in favour of an Australian involvement; after ten days, thirteen points; and after three and a half weeks, twenty-one points. If not in the same league as Hawker Britton-UMR, which saw a deficit of 27 percentage points at the beginning of March converted into a lead of nine points by the end of March, these figures certainly pointed in the same direction.

The United Nations

What happened to opinion when the United Nations entered the equation? No aspect of the polling was more interesting, or more deceptive, than this. From September, if not earlier, the UN seemed pivotal to the prospect – or at least the politics - of war. Nonetheless, questions about the UN were not especially prominent in the polls. Between August and February, polls focused on Australia and/or the United States - not on Australia, the US and the UN. Of the questions asked about Australian and/or American involvement in any war, and the place of the UN in sanctioning such a war, the number on Australia and/or the US (fourteen) was twice as great as the number about Australia and the UN.

If the polls placed greater emphasis on the Government’s position than on the Opposition’s, one reason for doing so may have been the realisation that if Australia were going to war it was more likely to be on John Howard’s terms than on Simon Crean’s. However, there was always some uncertainty about what the Opposition’s position actually was. While Howard was keen to have UN support, he had made it reasonably clear from the outset that Australia’s decision would not necessarily depend on such support. But for months, Crean continued to say both that Labor would not support a decision to go to war in defiance of the UN and that it was keeping its options open in case a compelling case for war could be made (Akerman, 2003).

By leaving the United Nations largely out of the reckoning for much of the time the polls ran the risk of measuring support for war in ways that were incomplete or misleading. However, with the war underway it looked increasingly as if it had been the questions on the UN that had been misleading – especially questions framed around the possibility that the UN would not sanction war – rather than the questions that left the UN out.

Newspoll asked three questions on the UN in September, then nothing on the UN until the end of January; between then and the war, however, it asked no fewer than seven. Hawker Britton-UMR asked about the UN twice between August and November, and it repeated its question in March. Morgan did not raise the UN until late January, and then only because it was responsible for the Australian leg of a Gallup International project in which a question about the UN was embedded. ACNielsen, commissioned before the war to ask just one question on Iraq - it asked a second question off its own bat – focused both its questions on the UN.

Where questions did refer to the UN, the impact was marked. If most respondents said they were not going to support a war against Iraq in which Australia simply joined the United States, even fewer put up their hands when polls posed the possibility of the UN opposing military action. When Newspoll asked respondents whether they would be in ‘favour or against Australia’s involvement in military action if the United Nations had not given approval for it’, no more than a fifth (19 per cent in September, 18 per cent in early February), rising to a quarter (22 per cent at the end of February/beginning of March, and 25 per cent a week before the war) of those interviewed said they would favour Australia’s involvement (Vass, 2002; Shanahan, 2002a, 2002b, 2002c). This was substantially less than the proportion telling interviewers that they supported Australia’s involvement in action against Iraq led by the United States.

When Morgan, in January, asked whether respondents favoured ‘military action against Iraq under no circumstances, only if sanctioned by the United Nations or unilaterally by America and its allies’, more than half (56 per cent) said ‘only if sanctioned by the United Nations’; the proportion prepared to back ‘unilateral’ military action ‘by America and its allies’ was just 12 per cent (Morgan, 2002a). And when ACNielsen, again in January, offered respondents three choices - to go to war ‘only as part of a United Nations approved force’; to go to war ‘even if the United Nations does not approve’; or not to be ‘involved in a war against Iraq’ – nearly two-thirds of those interviewed (62 per cent) said Australia should fight ‘only as part of a United Nations approved force’; 30 per cent thought Australia should not be ‘involved in a war’; a mere 6 per cent wanted to fight ‘even if the United Nations does not approve’ (Kitney, 2003a).

For supporters of war, polls like these occasioned some alarm. One columnist in the Australian feared that what her paper’s own poll had revealed was that ‘most Australians will blindly defer to the UN’, something that exposed ‘a lack of logic, to say nothing of moral abdication’ (Albrechtsen, 2003); an editorial in the paper praised the Prime Minister for not being swayed by such polls, not because they reflected opinions deficient in logic or morality but because ‘governments are elected to enact policies in the national interest, popular or not’ (Australian, 19 February). For opponents of the war such polls afforded considerable comfort. One Sydney Morning Herald journalist got quite carried away: ‘according to some reliable polls’, he claimed, ‘somewhere between 80 and 90 per cent…do not want war without the UN’ (Seccombe, 2003). Findings like those in the ACNielsen poll, one of his colleagues observed, helped explain why Crean had ‘edged closer to all out opposition to Australian troops going to Iraq’ (Kitney, 2003a), though why widespread opposition to war without the UN’s say-so should have made Crean wary of war even with the UN’s say-so was nowhere made clear.

What if neither the United States nor the UN were able ‘to present firm evidence’ that Iraq had ‘a nuclear weapon capability’? This question also lowered support for war. In September, two-thirds (65 per cent) of Newspoll’s respondents said that they would be against ‘a military campaign being launched’; nearly half (44 per cent) said they would be ‘strongly’ against such action (Vass, 2002).

While the UN’s opposition to war, or its failure to establish a just cause, appeared to decrease support for Australia’s involvement, the UN’s support for a war just as surely increased it. And not just in Australia. In Britain, the head of one polling organisation described the difference between going to war without the UN’s support and going to war with the UN’s support ‘as one of the most remarkable switches of public opinion that MORI has ever measured’ (Worcester, 2002). Faced with the prospect of United Nations backing for a war, most respondents fell into line. In October, November, and at the beginning of March, when Hawker Britton-UMR asked respondents to ‘suppose the UN Security Council supports military action against Iraq’, the majority (52 per cent rising to 64 per cent) said they would approve of ‘Australian armed forces participating in this action’. Between the end of January and mid-March, Newspoll, too, reported majority support (57 per cent rising to 61 per cent) for ‘military actions against Iraq if the United Nations supported such actions’. Even the prospect of Saddam Hussein’s allowing the UN weapons inspectors less than unconditional access seemed enough to convert majority opposition into majority support. Thus, in September, at a time when Newspoll was reporting that respondents opposed ‘Australia’s involvement in a possible US-led action against Iraq’, it was also reporting that for the majority of respondents (55 per cent) ‘If Iraq changed its decision to allow unconditional access to United Nations inspectors’ then ‘military intervention by the United Nations’ would be justified (Vass, 2002).

Were there any trends in the data? There were, but until the last weeks before the war they were not entirely clear. At the beginning of February, according to Newspoll, attitudes to an Australian commitment to a war that lacked UN support were precisely where they had been in September; only in March was there any sign of a shift. Conversely, the level of support for an Australian commitment if the UN did sign off was no greater at the beginning of March than it had been at the end of January; not until a Newspoll taken days before the war was there a noticeable shift. Hawker Britton-UMR was the only poll to detect an earlier shift. It reported a lift in support between October and November just as great (six percentage points) as the one it reported between November and March.

The Democratic Deficit

A ‘democratic deficit’ might be defined as the gap between the democratic ideal and the daily reality of democratic life. While the underlying idea is as old as democratic government itself, this way of expressing it is new. The origin of the phrase lies within the European Community; specifically, in debates about the relationship between economic and political integration in general and the legitimacy of non-majoritarian institutions in particular triggered by the establishment of the European Council and the European Parliament (Majone, 1998: 5).

Beyond the European Community and international organisations more generally (cf. Dahl, 1999: 34, McGrew, 2002: 273), the application of the phrase has been quite circumscribed. Barry Hindess relays ‘a widespread perception that the problem of the democratic deficit is getting worse’ (1997: 85). But ‘democratic deficit’ is not a phrase that finds much place in the burgeoning literature on deliberative democracy, among contemporary writings on direct democracy or in reports from those involved in democratic audits, where the performance of actually existing democracies are measured against a number of democratic criteria (cf. Weir and Beetham, 1999).

To call a gap between democratic theory and democratic practice a ‘democratic deficit’ begs a key question: against what yardsticks are democratic practices to be measured? In the context of the European Union it is possible to identify three quite different sets of standards relating to claims about a democratic deficit (Majone, 1998: 6-7): standards based on national institutions (for example, the argument that the European Parliament should be able to initiate legislation because national parliaments can); majoritarian standards derived from a theoretical model (the argument, for example, that the European Parliament should be directly elected and its powers increased); and standards derived from the democratic legitimacy of member states (for example, the argument that in place of majority voting, member states should have a power of veto).

It is not only in Europe, of course, that standards of democracy are contested. In the theoretical literature the range of possible democratic arrangements – and therefore of possible democratic deficits – is wider than the range of remedies usually canvassed in the European debate. At one extreme lies the democratic ideal famously articulated by the political economist Joseph Schumpeter: ‘that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote’ (1943: 269). At the other lies the ideal of direct democracy, defined by Ian Budge, in a recent defence, as ‘a regime in which adult citizens as a whole debate and vote on the most important political decisions, and where their vote determines the action to be taken’ (1996: 35).

Between these two ideals lies a chasm – not least in relation to arguments about the place of public opinion. On Schumpeter’s view, voters elect the government and, come the next election, can re-elect it if they choose. The idea of an election as some sort of transmission belt for the voter’s will on almost any issue, including issues of war and peace, was one that Schumpeter dismissed out of hand: ‘national and international affairs’ that lacked a ‘direct and unmistakable link’ with ‘private concerns’, he argued, were matters on which, typically, even the best educated citizens lacked interest, were unqualified to judge, and failed conspicuously to apply the rules of reasoning that governed other aspects of their lives (1943: 261-2). By contrast, a direct democrat sees elections as only part of the process, and a small part at that. Budge, for example, sees arguments against involving voters directly in government as largely ‘illogical’ – nothing less than a denial of the case for the franchise itself - amounting to little more than a defence of ‘elective dictatorship’ (1996: 190-3).

Between elections, on the Schumpeterian view, public opinion has little place. Governments, choosing to be prudent, might follow Victor Adler’s advice that ‘it was better to be wrong with the people than right against them’ (cited in Howard, 1981: 83). But nothing obliges governments to stay right with the people. Voters judge policy – more correctly, policy outcomes - retrospectively. On this view, the inability of the parties to anticipate developments after an election - war with Iraq, for example - creates no particular problem. And this view of democracy, variously described as ‘elitist’ or ‘realist’, is hardly an isolated one. As an account of how, in liberal democracies, governments should work - not least in relation to issues of war (cf. Lippmann, 1955: ch. 2; Luard, 1962: 162) - or of how voters determine their vote (cf. Fiorina, 1981), it has wide support. In rejecting calls for a referendum on the war, Howard himself said: ‘if you don’t like what [governments] are doing, then you vote them out of office’ (Tingle, 2003b). And a recent study of post-war American Presidents found that while seven of the ten ‘subscribed to the importance of public opinion’ only two agreed that ‘public opinion should affect foreign policy decisions’ (Foyle, 1999: 274).

As Hindess acknowledges, somewhat regretfully, ‘[i]f representative government provides the predominant modern understanding of democracy, the democratic deficit is an integral part of its design’ (2002: 30). On the other hand, if an ideal democracy is one in which public opinion is transmitted from the bottom and implemented at the top, we have to reconcile ourselves to the possibility of perverse outcomes. If the majority of voters in the European Community ‘oppose the idea of a European super-state, while supporting far-reaching economic integration…we are forced to conclude that, paradoxically, Europe’s “democratic deficit”, as the expression is usually understood, is democratically justified’ (Majone, 1998: 7).

Of course, to decry the existence of a democratic deficit is not necessarily to desire a system of democracy that converts the ‘will of the people’ into public policy. None of the standards of democracy outlined by Majone, and against which its critics variously find the European Community wanting, entails anything like this (but cf. Katz, 2001; Moravcsik, 2002). Nor do any of the remedies for the democratic deficit listed by Hindess - ‘industrial democracy, a significantly more active citizenry, an expanded role for civil society and the democratisation of major organisations within it, the devolution of governmental tasks to self-governing associations of citizens, and cosmopolitan democracy’ (1997: 84) - imply anything of this kind.

If democratic regimes should be responsive to public opinion – if one believes that ‘[a]ccording to a central strand of democratic theory, the policy preferences of ordinary citizens are supposed to form the foundation of government decision making (Page and Shapiro, 1992: 1); or if, as another American scholar once put it, ‘it is certainly more in keeping with the democratic ideal that the people should push a reluctant congress into war than that the Congress should pull a reluctant people into war (Bailey, 1948: 6) - to what sort of public opinion should a government respond? Should a government accept at face value whatever the polls show (Gallup and Rae, 1940: ch. 2)? Not necessarily. As Michael Howard shows, while liberal theories of international relations have long assumed that peace depends on the spread of democracy, they also assume that a peace-loving public needs to be an educated or enlightened one (1981: 31, 66, 77). Should polled opinion only be taken seriously, then, when it represents what Daniel Yankelovich calls ‘public judgment’, a collective decision taken only after people have ‘engaged an issue, considered it from all sides, understood the choices it leads to, and accepted the full consequences of the choices they make’ (1991: 6)? Or is it reasonable to settle for some other measures of quality (cf. Price and Neijens, 1997)?

The Polls and the Democratic Deficit

Let me try to link the analysis of public opinion on the war with some notion of a democratic deficit, one that takes a radical turn by bringing the concept into line with the idea that in a genuine democracy public policy ought to reflect citizens’ policy preferences.

A number of propositions to do with Iraq constituted common ground between the Howard Government and the public. Asked, almost a year after September 11, about their ‘biggest concerns over the next three years’, many (41 per cent) of those interviewed by ACNielsen (2002), nominated ‘a renewal of global terrorist attacks’ (from a list that included health, a worsening of the economy, corporate crime, job insecurity, and violent crime). Asked, again in September, whether ‘weapons inspectors should investigate Iraq’s weapon’s capabilities prior to any military action being launched’, almost everyone (89 per cent) interviewed by Newspoll said they should. But, in the same poll, the majority (56 per cent) agreed that Iraq’s offer of ‘unconditional and immediate access for United Nation’s weapon’s inspectors’ was not ‘genuine’ (Vass, 2002); and following the report of the chief United Nations weapons inspector, Hans Blix, three-quarters of those interviewed, agreed that Saddam Hussein was ‘hiding weapons of mass destruction’, with two-thirds of respondents (65 per cent) going on to agree that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were ‘currently a threat to global security’ (Shanahan, 2003a). Shortly after this, Howard is said to have remarked, privately, that if the question about going to war was: ‘Would you support a military strike against Iraq if it refuses to surrender its weapons of mass destruction?, you would get an entirely different result to the present poll figures’ (Milne, 2003b), though what poll figures he had in mind he did not say.

In September, the majority agreed that the Prime Minister ‘must detail in advance to the Australian people the case and evidence to warrant Australia’s involvement in any military action against Iraq’ (85 per cent) - something the Prime Minister tried to do, not only in set pieces but also in endless radio appearances and media interviews. A fortnight after the Bali bombings, of October 12, almost twice as many respondents in a Hawker Britton-UMR poll said that the bombings made them more likely (24 per cent) rather than less likely (14 per cent) to ‘approve of Australian military participation in an attack on Iraq’ – a line of argument to which, ten days before the war, Howard also appealed (Starick and English, 2003). And surveys by Newspoll in September (Vass, 2002), by ACNielsen in January (Allard, 2003a), and by Hawker Britton in September, October and March, reported that for around two-thirds (62 per cent to 70 per cent) of those interviewed Australia’s involvement in an attack on Iraq would increase the risk of a terrorist attack in Australia – a worry the Prime Minister sought to put to rest, most notably in his March 20 ‘Address to the Nation’ (Howard, 2003).

By late January, if not earlier, nearly half (45 per cent) of those interviewed by Morgan (2003a) thought it ‘very likely’ that ‘military action’ would be ‘launched against Iraq in the next few months’; and almost all of those who did not think war ‘very likely’ thought it ‘quite likely’. Not that there was any sign that voters, on balance, wanted war. So, while agreeing that military action was likely, the Prime Minister, faced by a group of ‘Liberals against the war’, said that he, too, was a ‘Liberal against war’ (Tingle and Hepworth, 2003). He stressed that the Government had made no decision to commit troops to war, and he insisted that if Australia did go to war, it was Saddam Hussein that would have to be held responsible not the Australian Government or the Americans (Kitney, 2003b).

However, if the Prime Minister and the public shared some views, they remained at odds on others. In ACNielsen’s (2002) September poll, the majority (54 per cent) of those interviewed nominated a ‘potential war on terrorism against Iraq’ as their greatest concern over the next three years. Asked, late in October, after Bali, whether ‘Australian military forces’ should be ‘used to deal with security issues in Australia and our region rather than participate in the invasion of Iraq’, very few (9 per cent) of those interviewed by Hawker Britton-UMR expressed a preference for participating in a war against Iraq. And at the end of January, following the government’s pre-deployment of ‘some troops to the Gulf region in preparation for a possible war against Iraq’, the majority (60 per cent) of those interviewed by Newspoll said they were opposed to ‘the sending of Australian troops at this stage’; nearly half (46 per cent) were ‘strongly’ opposed.

Mid-February saw a massive mobilisation against the war, and not just in Australia. In the wake of the marches, as many as two-thirds (65 per cent) of those interviewed by Newspoll agreed that ‘anti-war demonstrations should be taken into account by governments around the world when deciding what action to take against Iraq’ (Shanahan, 2003b). Speaking for the Australian Government, Howard tried to present himself as someone who had ‘a great respect for public opinion, I listen to it. I know there are people with reservations about this matter. I’ve thought about all that’ (Rintoul and Kaszubska, 2003). Instinctively, he would have had his doubts about who the demonstrators represented; as Les Murray, the poet once chosen by Howard to draft a preamble to the Constitution, had noted years earlier: a characteristic of ‘majority Australia’ was its ‘almost instinctive rejection of the rallies’ (1997: 144). So, while undoubtedly prepared to take the demonstrators ‘into account’, Howard was hardly ready to capitulate. Willing to acknowledged that ‘a certain percentage of people would feel very strongly opposed to my stance’, and demonstrate, he was keen to point out that ‘there would be many others who would either support it or be very much in the middle’ (Priest, 2003).

A war sanctioned by the United Nations, most respondents agreed, was something they would support. The Prime Minister not only accepted this, he tried to leverage it. He told the American President ‘there was a strong feeling within the Australian community that the UN process should be given a fair go’ (Lewis, et al., 2003); he made it clear that his own preference, ‘overwhelmingly’, was ‘for the matter to go through the Security Council’ (Tingle, 2003a); and he helped steer President Bush back to the UN (Oakes, 2003; Shanahan, 2003f). What if there was no UN support? Before the war, respondents rejected any idea of defying the UN, more than half rejecting the idea ‘strongly’. But no serious observer should have harboured any doubt that Australia was committed to the ‘coalition of the willing’ whether it received the Security Council’s blessing or not.

How resolute, or consistent, was polled opinion? Not as consistent, it seems, as the Government (Shanahan, 2003c). Interviewed by Newspoll in September, most respondents agreed that ‘[i]f neither the United States or [sic] the United Nations were able to present firm evidence that Iraq has a nuclear weapon capability’ they would be ‘against a military campaign being launched’; but in October, in response to a question posed by Hawker Britton-UMR, most respondents said that if ‘the UN Security Council supports military action against Iraq’ they would approve ‘Australian armed forces participating in this action’. In the September Newspoll, the majority agreed that if neither the United States nor the United Nations were able to present evidence that Iraq had a nuclear capability they would be against a military campaign; but in the same poll the majority agreed that ‘[i]f John Howard did provide evidence which supported a military campaign being taken against Iraq’ they would favour ‘Australian troops participating in a military campaign’. Even in late January, when the majority of respondents were still against war without a UN sanction, most of those interviewed by Morgan agreed that ‘[i]f military action does go ahead against Iraq’, Australia should ‘support this action.’

Some of these majorities may have been generated by the invalid measurement of consistent opinion rather than by the valid measurement of confused opinions. For example, had the line of questioning given them the chance, respondents in the September Newspoll may well have agreed that there were other bases on which they would have supported a war on Iraq, the failure of the US or the UN to ‘present firm evidence that Iraq has a nuclear weapon capability’ notwithstanding; certainly the majority agreed that ‘[i]f Iraq changed its decision to allow unconditional access to United Nations inspectors’, they would support ‘military intervention by the United Nations’. Again, having agreed that the Prime Minister should argue his case for ‘Australia’s involvement in any military action against Iraq’, it would have been churlish for respondents to turn around and say that even though he had made the case Australia should not go to war. (Whether the public eventually thought the Prime Minister had provided the evidence, the polls never asked). And in Morgan’s January poll, where majorities affirmed both that they would favour military action ‘only if sanctioned by the United Nations’ and that Australia should support military action if ‘military action goes ahead’, respondents may have assumed that if military action did go ahead this would only happen after the United Nations had agreed to it; certainly within both the Government and the Opposition, it was widely believed that a UN decision in favour of war was only a matter of time (Allard, 2003b; Milne, 2003a).

'Public Opinion and the Democratic Deficit: Australia and the War Against Iraq' continues in part II....

Murray Goot, Professor of Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University, is the co-editor of Australia's Gulf War (MUP, 1992) and is editing a special issue of the International Journal of Public Opinion Research on the war with Iraq.

1. In addition to the national polls, the metropolitan press commissioned a few state-based polls: from the Taverner Research Company (New South Wales), for the Fairfax-owned Sun-Herald in Sydney; from McNair Research (Victoria), for News’ Herald-Sun in Melbourne; and from Patterson. Market Research (Western Australia), for the independently owned West Australian in Perth. However, they add little to our store of knowledge and I have ignored these in the discussion that follows.

2. Morgan polls are also available on-line at www.roymorgan.com.au

3. In August, September, October and January, Newspoll surveys were conducted for SBS; see, www.newspoll.com.au

4. For results from the Hawker Britton-UMR poll, here and elsewhere, I am indebted to Hawker Britton’s Bevan Lisle. Some of the results are posted on www.hawkerbritton.com.au

In Australian Humanities Review, see also